Meg Munn MP makes International Women’s Day Speech at Eleanor McDonald Lecture

Written by Emelia Kenlock - 08 March 2013

The theme for the day, ‘the Gender Agenda’ is one that I feel passionately about and I am really pleased to be able to talk to you on a subject I have been campaigning on – the lack of women in the scientific, engineering and technology sectors.  There will be time for questions and debate.

I am not a scientist, mathematician or engineer - I have at times been a linguist, a social worker, a manager and now a politician, and last summer the Chartered Management Institute awarded me Chartered Manager status, the first UK politician to achieve this award.   

My passion for getting and keeping women in Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) springs not from my own background but from a desire to achieve gender equality in these important fields, combined with a conviction that Britain can lead in the great discoveries and technologic advances that will determine our future.    

We can only succeed as a Country if we nurture and encourage talent and ensure all our young people are able to be the best they can be. Who can know the innovations that remain undiscovered, the improvements in manufacturing that could produce better for less? The current situation threatens our chance of keeping pace with the rapidly growing leading-edge economies of the world.  It’s time for change. 

But first identify the problem

Many sectors in the economy which need science, technology, engineering, and maths graduates suffer with serious skills shortages. Despite the recession the CBI has found that 43% of employers say they are having difficulty recruiting staff with skills in these areas, and more than half expect to have difficulties in the next three years.

Companies are struggling to recruit the qualified staff they need, and in many cases have been doing so for some time. This damages our economy, slows up recovery and growth, and allows other countries to overtake us in innovation and manufacturing.

This problem is further exacerbated because the skills and talent of qualified women lie unused.  When I was Minister for Women and Equality I was staggered by the statistic that 70% of female graduates in SET don’t work in those fields, and many who start off in SET don’t stay.  That is a waste of talent, potential and investment.

The UK lags behind many European countries on gender equality in SET. Analysis of the 2007 European Labour Force Survey by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology showed that the UK is at the very bottom of a list of 28 European countries in terms of the percentage of the engineering profession which is female. 

In 2008, there were 620,000 female graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics of working age, but only 185,000 (around 30%) were employed in relevant occupations.

In 2010 nearly 100,000 female graduates in those disciplines were either unemployed or economically inactive. 

The Institute of Engineering and Technology’s 2012 skill survey found that only 6% of professional engineers are women and shockingly only 2% of engineering apprentices are female. Less than 30% of all female STEM graduates, in comparison to half of all male graduates, are working in these occupations. Many of these skilled women work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and consequently the economy operates below its potential. 

It was in 1993 that the White Paper Realising our Potential outlined the under-representation of women in STEM subjects. It demonstrated the importance of these sectors for the UK’s economic growth, and recognised that women are the single biggest undervalued and under-used human resource. Successive governments have recognised this as an important economic and social issue.

Further reports in 1994 and early 2000 made recommendations to change things, including work experience days for 15 – 16 year old girls and achieving 40% membership on SET related advisory bodies and boards by 2005.  Later recommendations from the Roberts Review in 2001 and the 2002 Greenfield Report included centralising the sources of advice for women; encouraging the introduction of carer-friendly working practices, and gender balance targets for certain organisations. 

One positive sign is that more girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses and they are also getting better grades - as confirmed by last year’s GCSE results. Although more boys overall chose STEM subjects, 1,207,400 boys compared to 1,155,100 girls the % of females achieving grades A – C* is 3.3% higher than the boys.

The increase in numbers of girls taking mathematics, further mathematics, technology subjects, physics, and science subjects at “A” level has been proportionately greater than that for boys.

If the jobs are there why is there such a problem getting enough girls interested?

One important answer to that is a question within Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in Science, Engineering & Technology a publication I edited, which gets to the heart of the issue - “How can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is?”  If you have never seen, never heard, a women inventing something, fixing something, will girls dream about doing that job when older? 

The Women in Leadership report published today by Women in Management and the Chartered Management Institute and available in your packs supports this. Liz Jackson, the CEO of Great Guns Marketing, identified a lack of knowledge among young women about the workplace.  She found that “Most girls just don’t know what is out there.  There is a massive detachment between education and the workplace, where they don’t know about these great jobs that exist”.

Unfortunately children learn early just what a ‘woman’s job’ and a ‘man’s job’ are and make their choices accordingly. Once set on a particular educational path, possibly chosen for you by the school to fit stereotypes, it can be hard to change and complete a new set of appropriate subjects.  The pay gap continues to show that women in management roles are paid less than men in comparable roles, compounding the view of men being worth more than a woman.  So not only is it harder for women to succeed, particularly in SET professions, but they are also paid less if and when they get there.

With only a minority of qualified women working as scientists, technologists or engineers, the role models for young women con­sidering these careers are unfortunately rare and often unsung. There are, however some good role models, and I had the pleasure of meeting one recently.  Margaret Wood, who is here today, set up a company called ICW, a specialist glazed unit manufacturer.  Her clients include Kew Gardens and the blockbuster film-makers.  Against the odds she set up and made a success of her company.  She was awarded the MBE for services to business in 2011.

How do we girls interested?

By breaking down the barriers.

I learnt a good deal about the issue when editing Unlocking Potential which I referred to earlier. It is a collection of essays exploring what is holding girls and women back and what we should do about it.  I was fortunate that the Institution of Engineering & Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Physics supported its publication.  It was published by the Smith Institute and is available to read online.

2004 saw the establishment of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) based in Bradford. They worked with employers, professional bodies and education institutions to promote gender equality by promoting role models of women scientists and supporting the removal of organisational barriers to the employment and retention of women. Tackling what is known as “unconscious bias” has been a key aspect of their work.

One way of enticing more young women into engineering is to listen to the enthusiasm of the young women who do work in the sector, some of whom contributed to my pamphlet.  I was struck by their desire to take on a challenging career that could give job satisfaction, and their enthusiasm for their work.  They are the very people we need to be role models and spread greater understanding about just what engineering is. 

We also need to encourage our schools to work more closely with local SET companies in arranging work experience sessions to ensure that young women can see for themselves the wide range of jobs in science and engineering. Schools need to see the value of this and move away from stereotypes and stop seeing SET as “a man’s job”. 

Some businesses are keen to pursue the option of working more closely with schools, which is excellent, but worryingly an Institute of Engineering and Technology’s survey found 25% of companies that engage with schools saw no benefit.  We need to change that and many in this room today can help with that. How many of us in this room are parents, school governors, hold senior positions where we can work with schools and local business to build bridges and open possibilities?

To support this argument in 2010 the trade union Pros­pect, which represents 14,000 women who work in these sectors, conducted a survey with women working in science and engineering across the public and private sectors.  35% of the 2,000 respondents said that they had been inspired by a teacher or educational opportunity, and 25% cited their main motivation as interest and enjoyment of their subject.

Businesses across the country are now recognising that more needs to be done to meet this skills gap. There are a number of initiatives out there, including the national STEM NET Ambassadors programme, which works with over 3000 employers to create effective links with education.  STEM ambassadors demonstrate the possibilities of these subjects and careers by demonstrating how essential science, technology, engineering and maths are for the world in which we live. 

The occupations of STEM ambassadors are very wide ranging, including environmental scientists, chemists, civil engineers, marine biologists, medical physicists, pharmacists, technology consultants and energy analysts. There are 25,000 approved STEM ambassadors – from business, industry and academia with a passion for inspiring young people.

Around 90% of UK secondary schools have accessed the STEM Ambassadors programme during the last year, and even better, 40% of the ambassadors are female.  This proportion is significantly higher than in the STEM workforce, especially so for the engineering cohort of ambassadors where 22% are female compared to around 8% of the engineering workforce.

Pupils that have taken part in activities with STEM ambassadors have more positive attitudes and a greater understanding of the importance of these subjects to everyday life and their interest and progress is significantly increased. Employers report significant improvements in their ability to recruit staff, especially in the local community, and reputational benefits including a greater public understanding of their work. Impacts on the STEM ambassadors are also positive including increased motivation and job satisfaction and greater recognition within their workplace. This initiative needs to be encouraged and supported.

At the end of 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to jointly lead a programme to tackle the issue of diversity in STEM. They intend to set up three to five pilot projects to raise the diversity of engineers. Unfortunately the budget allocated to the Royal Academy of Engineering for the new Diversity in Engineering Programme is just £200,000 a year, less than 10% of the £2.5 million previously allocated to the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and a tiny proportion of the whole science budget.

The UK Resource Centre itself had a successful 7 years developing programmes to work with schools, academia and industry until the present government chose to phase out all its funding.  This was extraordinarily short sighted.  Now operating as the WISE campaign they continue as much of their vital work as possible but without the support of Government. 

Finally we need to ensure role models are identified and accessible to young woman.  But it is not just women we need as role models – girls and young women can and are inspired by men who encourage them in their aspirations to join SET professions.  Breaking down the barriers, feeling supported in the workplace and changing the culture of workplaces means we not only recruit but importantly retain young women in these professions.

Is there a retention problem now?

Simply put – Yes.  In my recent visits to local engineering and technology companies I spoke to young women who worked there. While many were content in their work places they all said that they wished they had more female colleagues - one games designer identified the lack of female support as a key issue for her in the work place. Young women can feel so isolated that they leave the profession for which they have studied and trained

 Another key issue is workplace culture. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of sexist remarks and outright bullying that some women experience at work, where sexist remarks often remain unchallenged by colleagues and managers alike.  In addition many companies in this sector do not have family friendly policies - career breaks for maternity leave; flexible working to work hours around school pick up and drop off; work-life balance; and childcare - women still have the main responsibility for childcare.  Men will also benefit by positive approaches to family life.

 The following quote is taken from an online consultation carried out by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, back in 1999.

“Large companies should have no problem in providing these [family friendly] conditions. Unfortunately, when I have mentioned this to my employer in the past, my personnel department’s response is that ‘this is not a big problem because they don’t have many women engineers!’”

The 2010 Prospect survey also confirmed that the professional impact of having a family or part-time working were reasons many women leave.  Women identified this as a barrier to progres­sion or promotion and believe that legislation to prevent discrimination against part-time work­ers has not resolved this problem.  Respondents also revealed a deficit be­tween the formulation of family-friendly policies and their implementation.  They also found unhappiness with male-dominated workgroups and culture, which they found to be particularly marked in the private sector.

Respondents used words like intimidating and draining. One said “I’d like to get out of SET as soon as possible. It feels like being trapped in a dead end.”

Some reported a glass ceiling saying:

“I think I have reached the highest level I can in the organisation, there are less women higher up and I think I’d feel even more isolated.”

The perspectives they found reflect a combination of factors including pres­sures on public finances, career stage, scarcity of specialist career paths and quality of manage­ment.  They add that whilst some of the views will have resonance beyond science and engineering, there are particular chal­lenges that arise from working in highly skilled and competitive environments where women are so sig­nificantly under-represented. 

How do we ensure we are retaining young woman in SET?

Quite simply – culture change.

The business case for valuing highly trained women in an industry that has skill shortages seems obvious to me. Adopting some of the measures put in place in other industries, and found to be successful - flexible working and better managed career breaks for maternity leave for instance. So beyond these there needs to be a good look at a culture that in the main doesn’t encourage girls, indeed arguably acts as a disincentive for young women to consider careers in these sectors. Employers need to examine their recruitment practices; their terms and conditions; and the culture the leaders of the organisation encourage.  Is the culture inclusive, welcoming, open, and engaging – or is it closed, exclusive and hierarchical?

Sometimes a straightforward approach to addressing this issue can be successful when the will is there. A memorable example of this was shared at an event in Sheffield by a local engineering company who described how when taking on a new female apprentice they pondered what to do about the lack of shower facilities for her. A discussion ensued with the new recruit and an agreement was reached that her first task would be to build her own shower. Problem solved.

Cathy Travers, the most senior female engineer at Mott McDonalds in Sheffield, told me that when her children were young she was able to work during term time only, thus managing her family responsibilities while continuing her career.  By being adaptable, Mott McDonalds were rewarded with loy­alty, allowing them to retain a talented and experienced female employee.

There is also an opportunity for women in SET opening up – the Prospect survey included a note of optimism. Respondents reported:

“As the engineering population demographic in [my industry] is highly skewed, with many due to retire in the next few years, there are real opportuni­ties for those with time left to progress.”

An opportunity if it is seized by employers.

What is happening locally?

As a Sheffield MP - forgive me if I become parochial - I am well aware of our proud engineering and manufacturing heritage.  We boast world-class universities and have a new University Technical College due to accept its first intake of students in 2013, working hard to fulfil its aim of 50% female admissions in its first year.  Sheffield University’s engineer­ing department has already acted by appointing a professor working 50% of her time on this issue.

The University of Sheffield and Boeing’s Advanced Man­ufacturing Research Centre is focusing on recruiting more female apprentices led by engineer and training director Alison Bettac. Sheffield Hallam University’s Women in Science Engineering and Technology team is providing advice and support on how to make this ambi­tion a reality.

In Sheffield we are lucky to have a role model who is simply inspiring. Ruth Amos is running her own company; she is in her early twenties. She designed a product called the StairSteady as part of her GCSE Resistant Materials Course, to help people who have difficulty using the stairs but do not have the space or the money for a stair lift. It really took off when Ruth competed against thousands of applicants to win the Young Engineer for Britain 2006.

We have developed a Sheffield STEM working group for schools, colleges, universities and others. They are working on a number of initiatives, including next week a ‘Discover STEM for girls’ event put on by our two universities. Pupils will get a chance to try some hands-on activities which give a flavour of engineering and technology, and teachers will get the chance to talk to university experts about what they can do to make a difference to support girls into STEM subject’s post 16. Needless to say I will be there, and I am told they have some experiments for me to take part in!

The WiSET team continues to promote work experience in STEM, encouraging schools and employers to organise placements for girls (and boys) which are inspiring, challenging and with the opportunity for as much hands-on experience as possible. Schools often contact the team for advice on how to find placements and where possible they are signposted to local organisations with a record of offering sound placements. The team’s experience reinforces many of the lessons learned from previous research, that well organised, structured programmes with real projects and positive role models can result in more young people (especially girls) choosing STEM Careers.

The team works closely with the RAF to promote STEM Careers to girls and other under-represented groups. Models of best practice have been developed and the materials have been shared with other organisations through conferences, articles and other networking opportunities. An evaluation of the work experience schemes offered to girls and Black and Minority Ethnic students is taking place, based on an extensive survey of past participants.

Sheffield Hallam University are also putting on girl’s days for schools featuring female role models from industry. This will give girls the chance to meet eco-engineers and forensic scientists.  They are also working on a campaign to encourage girls to apply for the Sheffield University Technical College, holding themed taster events for school pupils and parents to think about different career options.  Next week, together with female undergraduates they’ll be running a chocolate welding workshop – no I don’t know what that means either!

Both universities are involved with the Athena SWAN programme, actively working to make their workplaces more positive for all through issues such as flexible working, promotions procedures, conference attendance for women in part-time roles, representation on influential committees etc.  They are also working with Queens University Belfast, the only University to hold an Athena SWAN silver award for the whole institution, to learn from their good practice.

In addition, work is ongoing to help encourage women back into engineering, science and technology following career breaks.  Employers across the region have supported this initiative by offering unpaid work shadowing to help build the women’s skills, confidence and networks.  And women are finding work back in these industries as a direct result.

We want Sheffield to be the first choice for women and girls who want to study and work in science, engineering and technology – however there’s nothing stopping Leeds, Wakefield, Bradford or anywhere else looking at what we are doing and saying ‘they’re not as far ahead as we are – let’s make our area first choice’.  A bit of competition is after all no bad thing. 

Conclusion

But to be honest I don’t care who’s first, I just want us to be able to say we got there; that careers in the scientific, engineering and technology sectors are attractive to girls.

At the moment the figures for women in science, engineering and technology careers remain stubbornly low, the skills shortage is well known, and the importance of these disciplines to our future economic growth is uncontested.  Nothing less than a concerted and persistent approach will be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is required.  Working together we can achieve real change, and the ben­efits would be substan­tial. It would begin to harness the skills and talent of girls and women who currently would never dream of taking up a career in science, engineering and technology.

Investing in these sectors – ensuring the best talent is available and able to flourish - will pay dividends for our country for many years to come.  In the short term it will help to boost businesses by providing them with the increased skilled workforce they require.  Longer term it could lead to the development of whole new industries with high quality jobs.

No single agency can resolve the range of economic, institutional, organi­sational and cultural challenges that ex­ist.  However, politicians, educators, business leaders and individuals working together can do it – they can create an environment which welcomes women so all our young people can realise their potential and ensure Britain leads the world in great discoveries and technological improvements.

Thank you for listening.